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A pile of pennies: Does a business have to accept coins?

A Utah man has been charged with disorderly conduct after attempting to pay a disputed medical bill with 2,500 pennies. The incident raises a legitimate question: Are businesses required to take your pennies?

A man in Vernal, Utah, has been charged with disorderly conduct after attempting to pay a disputed medical bill with 2,500 pennies, police say.

According to a story that appeared Friday in The Deseret News, Jason West went to Vernal’s Basin Clinic to dispute a $25 doctor’s bill. If the clinic remained unconvinced, West came with a Plan B, which involved almost 14 pounds of pennies.

Apparently, the argument didn’t go his way. According to Vernal police, West asked if the clinic accepted cash, and then dumped the 2,500 pennies on the counter, demanding that they count it. “The pennies were strewn about the counter and the floor,” said the assistant police chief.

It’s likely that the disorderly conduct charge had more to do with the dumping and strewing of the pennies and less to do with the currency itself. But the incident does raise a legitimate question: Are businesses required to take your pennies? A penny is, after all, legal tender. Doesn’t that mean they are good everywhere?

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Here’s what the law says: The Coinage Act of 1965, specifically Section 31 U.S.C. 5103, states: “United States coins and currency (including Federal reserve notes and circulating notes of Federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues. Foreign gold or silver coins are not legal tender for debts.”

All this means is that the Federal Reserve system must honor all U.S. currency. As the U.S. Treasury points out, there’s nothing in the law that says that private businesses have to accept it for all transactions. If a merchant wants to sell her products in exchange for gold bullion, nothing but dimes minted before 1946, Swedish fish, or Monopoly money, that’s her right under the law.

The absence of such a law is how bus lines can legally refuse to accept your dollar bills, gas station clerks can turn their noses up at your $100s, and panhandlers near the Monitor’s newsroom can yell at you after you drop a Sacagawea dollar coin in their cup, even though you were just trying to be nice.

In any case, West faces a fine of up to $140. If he’s convicted, he’s best advised to write a check.